The key to future generations being able to flourish in this changing world is for them to be able to communicate.
French, German and Spanish are staples on school curriculums but Mandarin – the language with the most native speakers in the world at almost a billion – is a rare occurence.
Some schools in Oxfordshire are taking it on their own heads to give pupils a chance to get ahead of the curve and learn Chinese.
It is a subject which, where taught, is primarily on offer at the county’s independent schools, but one state school has been seeing the benefit of the lessons for the past seven years.
Languages as a whole is a subject area which has gone through major changes – and is facing even more.
In 2002, the Labour Government made the subject optional for children aged 14, but from September this year, the teaching of a language is to be made compulsory for children from age seven.
Didcot Girls’ School (DGS), a specialist language school, champions the teaching of languages and boasts that 80 per cent of its students take a language at GCSE – a massive difference to the national figure of 20 per cent.
Teacher Lucy Marsh talks to Carys Croucher, 14, during a Year Nine Mandarin lesson
Mandarin teacher Lucy Marsh is a passionate advocate for the teaching of all languages in schools.
She said of Mandarin: “The language appeals to girls who like the challenge. But there is also the appeal to those interested in the arts, for obvious reasons.
“What I say to students, though, is that Chinese is not a language you should take because you think it may be good to know when you are thinking about jobs; it is good to know any language and you should do it because you want to.”
She added: “If you are going to use a language it is a commendable skill. By knowing a language you can show all sorts of different skills. And in the future, by having the basic skills to learn a language you can go anywhere in the world and it should make it easier for you to pick up that country’s language.”
Airlie Groves, 13, practises writing Chinese characters on the board during a lesson at Didcot Girls’ School.
Oxford Spires Academy headteacher Sue Croft said the school encourages all its pupils to take a language to GCSE level and currently has about 50 per cent progressing with a language.
The school has been in discussions to introduce Mandarin at the school next year, but currently offers lessons in Punjabi, Erdu, Portuguese and Arabic among others.
Mrs Croft said: “The students want something that sounds exciting and exotic, and the world is so much closer now.
“If you think how they can interact with people all over the world through social media and online gaming, languages are ever more important.
“China is a very influential and growing population and I do think that it would be helpful to them in the future.”
At the beginning of the month, a group of Didcot Girls’ School pupils travelled to London to take part in the British Council Mandarin Chinese Speaking Competition.
The school, where 71 per cent of GCSE students get the benchmark of five A* to C grades including English and maths, takes a group of students, from Year Nine up to sixth-formers, to China each year where they visit other schools and visit cultural sites – boosting their interest in learning the language.
And now, China tops the table for the number of new immigrants to the UK, according to figures released last November.
DGS headteacher Rachael Warwick said when girls start at the school they have the opportunity to sample French, German, Spanish and Chinese and in Year Eight they get to choose more specifically.
Didcot students pictured outside Beijing No 14 High School during a trip to China
Chinese is now overtaking German in popularity with pupils and the school can envisage it becoming ever more popular. The subject has been rolled out across all year groups, with up to 40 taking it at GCSE and about 10 taking it on to A-Level.
DGS headteacher Rachael Warwick
Mrs Warwick said: “We are lucky here in that we have two teachers who are able to provide this subject.
“It is difficult within state schools to have that provision – which is a reason why I think we are the only Oxfordshire state school, as far as I know, to teach Chinese Mandarin. There just isn’t that network or support that there is in the independent sector.”
Miss Marsh added: “When we take the girls over to China it is such a culture shock for them, but it is such an experience.”
DGS also goes into its feeder primary schools to give pupils in Years Three to Six a taster of the language, and engage their interest.
Mrs Warwick said: “China is becoming a major player on the world stage and we are proud of how we are giving our pupils a chance to get ahead and stand out from the crowd.”
OTHER schools across Oxfordshire offer pupils a different kind of language – Latin.
The A-Level in Latin is already offered at Wheatley Park School, and Cheney School in Headington will host the two-year course from September, run by Dr Lorna Robinson
Dr Lorna Robinson
This year, Cheney offered a Latin GCSE along with The Cherwell School in North Oxford, Chipping Norton School, Faringdon Community College, Didcot’s St Birinus School, The Cooper School in Bicester, Wheatley Park School and Henry Box School in Witney.